The following commentary was published on the Not Dead Yet blog on May 10, 2013.
S. 77, the assisted suicide bill passed by the Vermont State Senate on Wednesday, endangers disabled people, elderly people and ill people. The Vermont House should reconsider its earlier support of the legislation and work to protect the vulnerable citizens of Vermont.
Like the laws in Oregon and Washington, S. 77 provides no protection from an heir or other interested person misrepresenting an applicant’s wishes.
“Capable” means that a patient has the ability to make and communicate health care decisions to a physician, including communication through persons familiar with the patient’s manner of communication if those persons are available.**[§5281 (a)(2)]
And yet a person “familiar with the patient’s manner of communication” could be an heir or other interested person. And that person could be pressuring the person to choose assisted suicide.
Washington elder law attorney Margaret Dore details how the bill, like the Oregon and Washington laws it is modelled on, invites fraud and abuse. Because no witness is required at the death, “the opportunity is created for the patient’s heir, or for another person who will benefit financially from the death, to administer the lethal dose to the patient without his consent.” No matter what happened, charges of homicide would be difficult or impossible to bring in the face of the statute’s ironclad immunity.
Senator Peter Galbraith, whose vote switch got the bill through the Senate, said, “I understand and sympathize with the desire for people to have a say, to have some control, at the end of their lives.” Unfortunately, neither he nor many other legislators have sympathy for people who are already threatened with loss of control.
Bill Peace writes at the Bad Cripple Blog that while he has much respect for Vermonters’ sense of strong community, “I would speculate Vermonters have embraced a type of individualism that does not permit them to think about vulnerable populations and the risks they can encounter.”
He recounts the story of Vermonter Amanda Baggs, a leading disability rights activist who is autistic. But when she recently needed the insertion of a feeding tube to save her life, she was barraged by hostile hospital staff with urgings to consider “the alternative” – which could only be interpreted as doing nothing and dying. Peace also links to his own harrowing story of being encouraged to give up and die during a hospitalization.
This is the discrimination at the heart of assisted suicide legislation. When disabled people come into contact with medical professionals, they judge our quality of life to be so poor that death may be preferable. When some members of society consider the possibility of acquiring disabling conditions, they believe that it might be better to “choose” death. Amy Hasbrouck of Not Dead Yet Canada expressed this perfectly in her recent piece, Suicide Celebration Instead of Suicide Prevention.
Peter Galbraith based his initial opposition to legalized assisted suicide on the problem of involving the state in the practice. In February, he said on the Senate floor that he wanted to “leave it to the doctor and the patient.” He said that “opponents were concerned about a state-prescribed process for suicide. The medical profession is concerned about a profession that is about prolonging life being involved in a process to end life. The disabled community expressed concern to me that having a state-sponsored process would in some way diminish them in society. These are sincerely held convictions.”
In my own conversation with Galbraith, I emphasized that any state run program would discriminate against people with disabilities by commending certain disability-related reasons as sufficient for suicide. As demonstrated out in Oregon, these include losing certain physical abilities, “feeling like a burden”, and “loss of control of bodily functions.”
Vermont doctors, whose organization strongly opposed the legislation, will be made into gatekeepers of death, judging some reasons (e.g., embarrassment over incontinence) as rational reasons for suicide, but (presumably) rejecting others (e.g., being told by Martians to commit suicide) as not rational. Disabled people’s concern is that these disability related reasons are the products of a complex array of social conditioning, stigma and failings in public policy, and should never be used to justify providing suicide assistance rather than suicide prevention. — John Kelly, Second Thoughts Massachusetts.